D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) is a novel in which natural desires perturb the lives of people fixated on artistic and intellectual transcendence. Ursula, Gudrun, Gerald, and Birkin struggle—even to death—to resist their inevitable coupling. The story is uncomfortable, full of bad feelings created by the dissonance between individual freedom and what the life force compels. For Lawrence, this life force manifests most powerfully in botanical reproduction, the invisibly persistent generation of flowers, nuts, and leaves.
In this scene in the schoolroom, Ursula leads her pupils in sketching catkins and hazel when Birkin and his lover Hermione come for a visit. Their admiration of the catkins devolves into a bitter argument over the hyper-intellectualization of life and the false tension between knowledge and beauty. Birkin pulls apart the catkin to explicate the mystery of its sexual nature. Should we, the novel asks, do the same of romantic love?
‘Do you know the little red ovary flowers, that produce the nuts? Have you ever noticed them?‘ he asked her. And he came close and pointed them out to her, on the sprig she held.
‘No,‘ she replied. ‘What are they?’
‘Those are the little seed-producing flowers, and the long catkins, they only produce pollen, to fertilise them.‘
‘Do they, do they!’ repeated Hermione, looking closely.
‘From those little red bits, the nuts come; if they receive pollen from the long danglers.‘
‘Little red flames, little red flames,’ murmured Hermione to herself. And she remained for some moments looking only at the small buds out of which the red flickers of the stigma issued.
‘Aren’t they beautiful? I think they’re so beautiful,‘ she said, moving close to Birkin, and pointing to the red filaments with her long, white finger.
‘Had you never noticed them before?‘ he asked.
‘No, never before,‘ she replied.
‘And now you will always see them,‘ he said.
“Hazel Tree, Lamb’s Tails” 1915, Charles Rennie Mackintosh
© The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow 2015